Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men
By Harold Lamb
Published in 1927
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
This book is a narrative history of Genghis Khan. In a style typical of historians of his time, Lamb imagines what life for Genghis Khan must have been like, and writes in a descriptive style. This reads like a fiction book - which is where the problems come from. When Lamb is unsure what happened, then he substitutes facts for imagination.
I’ve read many books by Harold Lamb, so roughly knew what to expect. I was hoping that there would be more discussion of sources, historiography, and archeology. However, as with many early 20th century history books, that is perhaps too much to expect.
Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men constantly referenced World War I. Unlike early 21st century readers, who are completely unfamiliar with war, this book was written by someone with an intimate first person impression of World War I. As a result, this biography does a good job at recalling the genocide, war crimes, and attrocities commited by the Mongols. Many of the more modern history of Mongols are written by Mongolophiles, and tend to gloss over the more unsavory parts of Mongol history.
The most interesting historical detail that Harold Lamb continuously recalls is the sheer consistency of Mongol law. Despite the brutality of the conquerors, their laws were strictly enforced and always consistent.
I do not recommend this book, even to Mongolophiles.
A Concise History of the Rise and Fall of the Mongolian Empire: The Building of an Empire
By Henry Harrison Epps Jr.
Published in December 2013
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
I like it when books straightforwardly contain all of the information as advertised. This book is just that: a concise history of the rise and fall of the Mongolian empire.
Much of the text is copy pasted from Wikipedia, which is fine by me because the audiobook is well produced. Wikipedia is clearly written and concise. The only problem is that it doesn’t come as an audiobook, which this book does.
This book doesn’t do a great job of explaining the root causes of Mongol history, analysing the sources, or going into detail. What it does is highlight the major events of Mongol history, from the rise of Chingghis Khan until the end of the reign of his grandson Kublai Khan. It is clear and dry, simple and straightforward, short and concise.
I like to start my historical deep dives with survey histories to simply understand the relationship between different events over time. This book accomplished that purpose, and nothing more.
Thinking Fast and Slow
By Daniel Kahneman
Published in 2011
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
Thinking Fast and Slow is a behavioral economics book written by economics nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman.
The basic premise of the book is that there are two types of thinking: fast, which is subconscious and efficient but more likely to be wrong, and slow, which is calculated and accurate but takes more time.
Examples of fast thinking might be when a driver swerves out of the way to avoid a dear, when someone recognizes a song, or when someone reaches out to hug a relative after a prolonged absence. Examples of slow thinking might be writing an article, solving math problems, or planning one’s day.
The two types of thinking are not separate, but rather are deeply connected. For example, fast thinking can be primed with subconscious language. People going to a movie theater and watching a film depicting people drinking Coca Cola on a sunny day are more likely to purchase beverages.
On the other hand, slow thinking takes effort. Intellectuals are physically drained, and require sugar in order to function after periods of heavy thinking. Less intelligent people avoid slow thinking altogether because it consumes many bodily resources.
Understanding the two ways of thinking about the world is critical. Failure to do so may lead one to adopt unconscious biases. The only way to combat these biases is to be more aware of the cognitive processes
I already had heard most of the examples in the book from YouTube TED talks and elsewhere, so found the book pretty boring. I understand the value of the research and why Kahneman won the nobel prize in economics, but didn’t learn as much as I have from other books that I’ve read recently.
Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk
By Peter L. Bernstein
Published in August 1998
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
Against the Gods is a brief intellectual history of how different mathematicians and economists have interpreted risk throughout the ages.
Bernstein starts with the ancient Greeks, who had no concept of risk, jumps to the intellectuals of the renaissance, enlightenment, Victorian era, ending with modern thinkers like John Meynard Keynes.
The probabilistic understanding of risk is relatively recent. In the past, scholars did not believe that the world was logical, and thus predictable. The thinkers of today now trend towards the opposite bias.
I wish that Against the Gods had talked a little bit more about risk in financial markets, which is why I read the book. I simply didn’t get much of what I was hoping to find out of it.
Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco
By Bryan Burrough and John Helyar
Published in 1989
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco is probably the world’s best known book about private equity leveraged buyouts. It covers the insane bidding war between KKR, Forstmann Little & Company, Shearson Lehman Hutton, and others.
Several things struck out to me as I embarked on my journey through the world of late 1980s private equity.
First, the level of greed and decadence of RJR Nabisco’s last CEO Ross Johnson is truly staggering. The worst left wing stereotypes about cruel, sociopathic, and greedy CEOs are all embodied in the person of Johnson. Johnson was shamelessly looting Nabisco’s coffers, spending incredible amounts of money on private jets, country clubs, and mistresses.
The next oddity is that the private equity was not taking the stock public and doing an IPO. The private equity firms of the 1980s seem to in fact be doing the opposite of what modern firms do - they were taking RJR Nabisco’s already public stock private. I don’t really understand the economics of LBOs, and why PE firms would benefit from taking the stock private.
Finally, the behavior of the private equity fund managers described in the book doesn’t mesh well at all with the behavior I have observed in PE people during my day to day life. My image of private equity is that of extremely serious people very concerned about metrics and data. The private equity GPs of the 1980s are backstabbing frat bros with billions of dollars at their hands. The sheer scale of the disinformation tactics and treachery they displayed when interacting with each other is truly incredible.
I don’t understand why the share price went up from $75 to $112. To me it seems like the whole deal was a fiasco. I am shocked that KKR has survived, especially because it seems to me like the most expensive deals are always the worst ones.
Barbarians at the Gate is probably the most widely read and recommended book in the history of private equity. I am not sure if it merits that title, because if it does, then it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the private equity literature. That being said, it succeeds in the sometimes irreconcilable tasks of being both incredibly informative as well as incredibly entertaining.
Much about the world of private equity remains a mystery to me. But the case study of the decline and fall of RJR Nabisco is definitely worthwhile. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about private equity.
The New Tycoons: Inside the Trillion Dollar Private Equity Industry That Owns Everything
By Jason Kelly
Published in September 2012
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
My day to day work at the Adrianople Group has frequently brought me into contact with the private equity industry. This is problematic, as prior to my time at AG, I had never heard of private equity before.
This book has helped clarify and explain many of the interactions that I have had with private equity over the last year. It has de-mystified many of the confusing and complex relationships that I have noticed.
Overall, this is by far the best primer into private equity that I have found. I am recommending it to everyone at the Adrianople Group who is a novice that will soon be working with private equity firms. Many of the firms mentioned in the book are the very firms that I am researching. I could not have found a more topical read.
The caveat is that, unless you are planning on working in or near private equity, this book simply doesn’t have that much useful or interesting information.
The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World
Published in September 2009
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
I already knew much of what was discussed in the Candy Machine, but this book clarified the details and helped reinforce what I already knew.
The big argument the book builds up to is the case for legalizing cocaine. I already agreed with drug legalization, so that wasn’t much of a surprise to me.
To me, the war on drugs has always been a no brainer. The case for legalizing all drugs, even the most dangerous and addictive ones, has been so obvious that I’ve never thought much about it. My intuition has always been to legalize drugs, stop criminalizing casual users, and let the problem users poison themselves.
What is most fascinating is that coca leaves are a harmless “drug,” roughly on the same level in terms of health effects as coffee or cannabis. Over time, increasingly powerful cocaine extracts were sold by corporations. When coca was criminalized, the extracts became very dangerous as the potency increased and they were adulterated.
When I opened this book, I expected it to be mostly about the logistics of getting drugs from Latin America to North America. There was almost no mention of specific dealers like Pablo Escrobar - instead it was a sociological analysis of the history of cocaine use, the devastating effects of prohibition in transit countries like Jamaica and Colombia, and the effects on users.
If I had supported drug prohibition, it probably would have changed my views. If ever I run across someone who supports criminalization of cocaine and has really authoritarian views, I will give them this book.
The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy and the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia & Han China
By Raoul McLaughlin
Published in November 2016
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
First, a brief warning: the audiobook is pretty bad. The narrator sounds very sleepy, and is hard to listen to.
However, the book itself is great. It covers the international commerce of late antiquity that connected the great civilizations of the Roman Empire, Persia, India, and China. The book draws on sources from all four major civilizations, as well as some other groups that existed along the silk roads.
The most fascinating aspect of the silk road is that it was very indirect. Civilizations would often only be aware of their neighbors - they would circulate goods within their known part of the world up to their frontiers, but not further. Only some steppe nomads had travelled far enough to witness the many different civilizations of the ancient world.
For example, a bundle of silk cloth might be produced in China. It would then be gifted by the Chinese government as a diplomatic gift to a Turkish tribe. The Turks would then sell it to Persian merchants to get metals and weapons. Once in Persia, the bundle of cloth would pass hands several times, sold from merchant to merchant. Finally, it would make its way to Egypt, and from there, be transported and sold in the markets of Rome.
Learning more about the silk road has helped contextualize both the modern Chinese Belt and Road program as well as the socio-economic context of the crusades.
I recommend this book to everyone who has even a cursory interest in the Roman Empire, Chinese history, economic history, the crusades, or steppe nomads. This book neatly intersects all topics without being too complicated for a novice.
The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe
By Barry Cunliffe
Published in December 2019
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The next period of history that I plan to study in depth is Central Asia from the time of Atilla the Hun (406 AD) until Timur (1405 AD) - a 1000 year period that roughly encapsulates the Middle Ages.
In order to better contextualize the era, I decided to pick this book up to learn more about the semi-mythical scythians.
At first, I worried that this book would be highly speculative and contain wild theories about the steppe nomad - many books about antiquity suffer from this problem. However, to my pleasant surprise, I discovered that Barry Cunliffe is careful not to speculate too much and has pretty good historiography.
The scythians were the earliest known steppe nomads. Like the better understood Huns, Turks, or Mongols, the scythians used horse archery to dominate the steppes.
“Scythian” is a Greek term used to describe the steppe peoples which has been passed down as the term to describe an archeological culture that existed from roughly 1000 BC until the early centuries AD.
The written record of scythians is sparse. They left us no written record, although the sedentary peoples of Greece, Persia, India, and China have left written records about their civilization. These records consist mostly of sparse references.
The scythians seem very primitive.
Most groups don’t have agriculture. The groups that do mostly live in the forests. They do have some trade with sedentary cultures, with Greek and Chinese influence slowly spreading far throughout the steppes of Central Asia.
Over time, the scythians become more centralized and militarized. By the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, they come to be dominated by powerful subgroups that can militarily challenge the sedentarized peoples of Europe.
A fascinating start to my deep dive into the history of the peoples of Central Asia.
I recommend this book to anyone with a general interest in learning more about the history of the steppe peoples.
The Secret Life of Trees
By Peter Wohlleben
Published in August 2018
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
This book has been recommended to me by 4 or 5 different people, most notably my mother and my wife. Because I needed a break from history, I decided to pick it up.
I have never found trees to be particularly interesting. Boy, was I wrong.
Trees exist in a sort of naturally evolved neural network. They are highly responsive to their environment, and communicate via long and interconnected root systems and chemicals that they release in the air.
Trees provide resources to help nurture their young, and continue to feed dead tree stumps so conserve the soil. They can even identify and eliminate cheaters who take advantage of what Wohlleben calls the “social security” of the first.
Trees are not defenceless against predators. They release pesticides to ward off insects. In cases when these pesticides fail, some release chemicals that attract predators who hunt the insects. Many provide habitats for birds and creatures which eat their predators.
Finally, Wohlleben explains why modern forestry fails. His arguments against forestry remind me of those made in Seeing Like a State. He explains how monocropping and policies that opt to grow fast growing conifers rather than indigenous trees hurts rather than helps the environment.
Overall, this was a truly fascinating read. Next time I need a break from history, I will be sure to pick up some of Wohlleben’s other books.
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